Reclamation: thoughts from a fat hairy uppity lame bitch

This article was originally posted at Hoyden About Town on June 23, 2007, but has been substantially edited and updated for FWD/Forward.

This post started with me suggesting a FAQ on reclamation for the “Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog” blog: “But there’s a whole feminist magazine called Bitch and a book called The Ethical Slut, so why can’t I call you a slutty bitch?” I tried to write a one-paragraph answer, but things snowballed a little. Here’s my attempt at answering; I welcome yours, and have put in a few questions at the end.

I’ll open with a quote from Robin Brontsema’s “A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation”:

Laying claim to the forbidden, the word as weapon is taken up and taken back by those it seeks to shackle, a self-emancipation that defies hegemonic linguistic ownership and the (ab)use of power. Linguistic reclamation, also known as linguistic resignification or reappropriation, refers to the appropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target(s).

As with just about any topic in feminism, when stripped to the bone, reclamation is about power. The kyriarchal position is that people with power get to set the agenda, control the discourse, define people in pejorative terms, and decide what is or isn’t offensive – not only to themselves, but to others. They place themselves firmly in the subject position, and unilaterally assume the role of making decisions for less powerful people – the objects.

Feminism and disability activism are about turning that dominance model on its head in every realm, including language. One recurring feature of feminist discussion about pejorative speech is that the person with the lesser power gets to decide what is offensive to them, and that we should be listening to their voices, not those of the dominant group. In the case of sexist language, women have the voices that count, the voices that all need to listen to. For racist speech, women of colour. For classist speech, poor women. For ableist speech, disabled women. For anti-lesbian speech, lesbian women. Fattist speech, fat women. And so on, and so on.

Linguistic reclamation is the re-appropriation of a term used by those in power to demean and disparage those in a less powerful group. One way in which women refuse the object position and reclaim their subjectivity is to take back control of pejorative terms such as “bitch”, “slut”, “crip”, “gimp”, “chick”, “crone”, and “harridan”. Defused, a reclaimed word can become an in-group identifier, with a positive, powerful spin. It’s all about who gets to define “us” – “them” or “us”? Reclamation is about refusing to let others define your group, set the parameters, or establish the meanings. In some instances, reclamation is about reclaiming not just an arbitrarily-defined pejorative word, but about proudly reclaiming the pejorative meaning, when it is based in the fear of women speaking their minds, defending themselves, not letting their personal value be defined by their sexual worth to patriarchy.

EXAMPLES

Here’s a smorgasbord of examples of reclamatory language. Going by the principle of “In their own words”, I’ve pulled out snippets of discussion about or explanation of the specific reclaimed terms in a few cases.

Crip, Gimp, Mad, and Retard

Book cover: Crip theory: cultural signs of queerness and disability by Robert McRuerWhen talking about reclamation and disability, “Crip” is the word that springs most readily to mind. Not only are individuals with all sorts of disabilities referring to themselves proudly and defiantly as crips, but an entire academic field is springing into being, dubbed Crip Theory.

Crip theory takes the social model further and critiques disability theory. Rather than aiming to normalise disability and help disabled people to “fit in” to society as disability theory and neoliberalism do, this theory argues that society itself needs to be radically changed. Crip theory argues that disabled people are transforming our world into a more democratic, diverse, flexible place — by resisting oppressive social structures and calls for normalisation and assimilation, by living with pride and self-esteem, by speaking about their experiences of pain and pleasure, by expressing their sexuality, and by forming communities of support, love, activism and interdependence.

(Women, Disabled, Queer: Working together for our sexuality and rights, AWID International Forum 2008, via Creaworld.)

In “How dare I say ‘crip’?”, Victoria Brignell writes of her use of the word “crip:”

The crucial difference now is that it’s disabled people themselves who are using the word.

It’s part of a trend towards “reclaiming” language for our own purposes. We know full well that when we say the word crip, it will shock and startle – or at least raise eyebrows. It will grab able-bodied people’s attention and make them take notice of us. It forces able-bodied people to confront our disability. Whereas in the past able-bodied people used the word against us, we are now using it against able-bodied people. [...] it’s when disabled people themselves use the word that it has the most desirable impact. When it comes from our lips, it becomes a linguistic tool in the struggle for the social inclusion of disabled people.

Eli muses about the etymology of the word “crip” in “Thinking about the word crip”:

I know where crip comes from in disability communities—the long histories of folks who have had cripple used against us. We have taken the word into our own mouths, rolled it around, shortened it, spoken it with fondness, humor, irony, recognition. And yet I can’t remember the first moment I heard the shortened, reclaimed version (nor, for that matter, the longer pain-infused original), when I adopted it as my own, started calling myself a queer crip. What are the specifics to this history and etymology? Who said it first in which spaces; how did it catch on; when was it first written down as a way of inscribing pride and resistance; how did it come to be passed from person to person over the years so that now I find myself thinking, “But didn’t crip just arise organically from disability communities, movements, cultures?” These are the questions to map out personal and communal etymologies that have very little to do with the Oxford English Dictionary, often thought of as the final authority on the history and etymology of English words.

Various crip pride buttons: Gimpgirl Community, Lame Is Sexy, Lame Is Good, Fuck Pity/Crip Pride, Crips & Trannies Need to Pee TooConfluere carries a series of buttons declaring “Lame is Sexy”, “Lame is Good”, “Fuck Pity/Crip Pride”, and “Crips & Trannies Need to Pee Too”. Gimpgirl markets a variety of merchandise at: No Pity City, where those at the intersection of feminism and disability activism can assert their pride. There are many reclamatory blogs, from Bad Cripple, Crip Chronicles, and and Cripchick to Crip College and Crip Critic. And it doesn’t stop there – check out The Gimp Parade, the gimp_vent community at Livejournal, Gimp on the Go travel magazine, and the very active GimpGirl community.

Wheelchair Dancer extends our understanding of crip/gimp reclamation in a wonderful post about gender and embodiment that is difficult to encapsulate in a pullquote – read the whole thing at “Butch/Femme — Crip”:

A while back in this post, I spoke of bones and muscle. I’d like to go back to that place. I am drawn there as a dancer and as a sexual person. The bones of my body hold true for me; my muscles are what my body has given me. So even when my joints are unstable and my muscles torque and spasm, I recognize in these places parts of my deepest self. I strive to hold on to these selfs in every day life and in dance. I strive to bring them to the street and to the stage. Does desiring muscle and bone make me butch and deny me femme as positions from which I can navigate the world?

This, I think, is crip, is gimp. It is an understanding of the sexuality of the deepest and rawest parts of the body — it is not so much a focus on gender presentation and on responses to gendered roles. It is an answer to the call of the fibres, the sinews, the fluids, and the infinite structure of the bones.

Moving on from these words for physical disability, you can delve into the reclamation of pejorative terms for neurologically atypical people. The most striking example is possibly Mad Pride, a movement that fights for the rights of people labelled with psychiatric illnesses and affected by abusive mental health systems. Ira Socol argues (somewhat controversially) for “Retard Theory”, at SpeEdChange.

At Biodiverse Resistance, inReclaiming words: Who can reclaim what?, Shiva wrestles with the thorny issues of who can validly reclaim which terms within the widely diverse disability community:

A pattern i find particularly interesting that crops up repeatedly is the ambiguity of how widely words can be reclaimed – just where are the boundaries of the group allowed to do the reclaiming? – which seems to me to feed into much bigger questions about identity politics and whether it’s unitive or divisive, the fluidity of identities and just how “self-defined” identities relate to those defined from outside or “above”, etc – which is of particular interest to me with regard to my strong feeling that all people who are oppressed or discriminated against because of biological or cultural difference have common interests and parallel experiences, and have much to gain from allying with one another – yet at the same time, the identities of individual minority groups can be fiercely and jealously guarded, and there is a fuzzy and incredibly difficult (for me, anyway) to locate line between alliance, analogy and appropriation

I am personally less familiar with the world of neuroatypicality, and the words aren’t mine to reclaim, so perhaps those who identify as neurologically atypical might feel free to discuss more in comments.

Bitch, Girl, Slut, and Cunt

Bitch magazine‘s About page sums up the way many women think about the reclamation of the word “bitch”:

The writer Rebecca West, back in the day, said, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” We’d argue that the word “bitch” is usually deployed for the same purpose. When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment, thanks.

Linuxchix and its subgroups, “grrltalk” and “grrls-only” were the subject of a debate in which some interlocutors whined that reclamatory language was an inappropriate “Special Privilege!” for women:

I think it’s more about being ironic than about having special “privileges”. And the irony wouldn’t work if you aren’t a part of the group in question. [Cliff Crawford]

Insider language often can include the same words which when used by an outsider are derogatory but when used by an insider are a friendly sign of inclusion. [Shulamit]

The Ethical Slut author Janet Hardy takes this approach to defusing the word:

Slut has been used for many years as a way to shame women out of their sexuality. We think sluts are adults of any gender or orientation who love sex and welcome it into their lives in whatever form feels best to them.

And possibly the most taboo anti-woman expletive of all, “cunt”, commonly called just “the c word”, the one my grandmother steadfastedly refused to explain to my mother, has been reclaimed by feminists – including the author of Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Inga Muscio. From the Library Journal review:

Muscio encourages women to reclaim the word “cunt”, rejecting its negative connotations and reincarnating it as a symbol of women’s power and strength. She invites women to disregard the derogatory messages they receive about their bodies and their womanhood: both “the anatomical jewel”, as she terms it, and the essence of femaleness.

Kate Townshend, in her War of Words article on The F-Word blog, discusses the reclamation of the word “Feminist”:

In order to effect a shift in the meaning of a particular word we need to use language in a more general sense to frame it. That we talk about feminism at all, that the debates still exist and are invigorated is a crucial and continuing victory. Male gaze has always positioned women as objects to be seen, decorative, visual creatures. Feminism and its associated movements announce women as creatures to be heard as well.

Blogger Bitch, Ph.D. explains her blogonym:

So I think that’s kind of the thing about bitching. If you’re doing it all alone, and it’s falling on deaf ears, and you feel powerless, it’s easy to feel like bitching is pointless. And that, of course, is why some people call other people bitches–to try to isolate them, marginalize what they’re doing, keep other women from joining them in bitching. But when bitchy women start bitching at each other, and then bitching together in a kind of bitches coven, it does make a difference. It makes you realize you’re not alone, and you do have the right to feel ticked off about whatever’s twisting your knickers, and hey, now that you mention it, my panties are in a bunch too, and why the fuck don’t clothing manufacturers make underwear that doesn’t ride up your crack? [...] And the cacophany of bitchiness gets so loud that everyone else finally hears it and realizes that they need to move the hell over to where we are and include us in their conversations, and join our conversations, bring us into the party, or else the party is effectively over.

Angry Black Bitch:

For the record…a bitch doesn’t need permission, tolerance or acceptance to celebrate the wonderful diversity that is me.

Empowerment gave me that.

You feel me?

Fuck you if it intimidates you…if you anticipated gratitude…if you prefer submission…if you are more comfortable with Toby.

Yeah…fuck you.

I stopped trying to put The Man at ease years ago.

Uppity, Fat, and Angry

Reclamation isn’t limited to nouns. Just as Bitch PhD, Bitch Magazine, and Angry Black Bitch are reclaiming the act of bitching, other feminists are reclaiming adjectives: “angry”, “uppity”, “fat”, and even “hairy”, all terms used to denigrate and dismiss women who aren’t adequately submissive or ornamental.

Uppity Women Magazine proclaims on its banner:

This is a place for uppity women. You know who you are. You are a woman who refuses to keep your place, to limit yourself in any way, to live down to others’ expectations. You are a woman who gets up again and again, every time life knocks you down. You’ve learned how to survive. Now it’s time to learn how to prosper.

“Uppity” isn’t confined to antifeminism; it has been used in attempts put activists of all kinds into place, including people of colour (possibly the most well known use in the USA) and disability activists. Ragged Edge magazine reviewed Harriet McBryde Johnson’s Too Late To Die Young:

The chapter “Art Object” is the story of her contretemps with the New York Times Magazine photographer sent to record her image for the “Unspeakable Conversations” article. But in Johnson’s recounting of the test of wills between a New York artist used to seducing her subjects into pliability before the camera and the immovable object that is the attorney Johnson at her finest, we see both the mindset of the “uppity cripple” — which most of us will cheer — and its very unsettling effect on those not used to power in wheelchairs coming from driver rather than battery.

“Protesting is contrary to the teachings of Charleston’s civil religion, politeness,” she tells us. But she’s an uppity crip, and her book is a manifesto for uppity crips everywhere: “I believe that living our strange and different lives, however we choose and manage to live them, is a contribution to the struggle.”

Krista Scott’s thesis “Girls Need Modems!”: Cyberculture and Women’s Ezines quote a FaT GiRL ezine article, “A Fat, Vulgar, Angry Slut” by Betty Rose Dudley:

I usually tell people that I am a fat, white, working-class bitch who comes from a small town in the slightly southern, mostly midwestern state of Missouri:I am an angry woman, a very angry woman: I am a slut. A fat, lecherous, rude, crude, and very nice slut: I am tacky and vulgar. I wallow in vulgarity, consume it with the hunger fat girls are famous for: I make words and music my own. I take back my power: I no longer give you the power to tell me who to be or how to behave: I am a vulgar woman. I am a powerful female.

The book Fat! So? and Big Fat Blog are in the forefront of fat-reclamation. The Fat! So? tagline is:

for people who don’t apologize for their size.

Big Fat Blog has taken a slightly different approach to reclamation, arguing for a broad, society-wide reclamation of the word “fat” – one not restricted to use by fat people.

Fat is a descriptor. It is what it is. Fat is fat. Fat is not bad. What’s worse is that actions like this put fat people, collectively, in a bad position. The supposition here is that we’re so “offended” by the use of the word “fat” that we don’t want anyone to use it.

Truth be told, I say go for it. This is a word that we should own and ultimately is a word that should empower. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something that other people should get in trouble for – no. It’s ours.

“The Bitch King” talks about power (read the whole thing at the link):

I transgress when I define myself.

Naming is power and naming myself gives me power. When I define myself, I become the subject of this sentence.

Because the Bitch King does not negotiate.

Western culture perpetuates this myth that god gave Adam the power to name. He named Eve, along with the rest of the world. This story is a cultural symbol of gendered power relations. Man becomes the center of the universe. Woman becomes a part of the scenery.

For too long, women have been the objects of naming, labeled by males, defined by patriarchal standards.

I write my own history because the time for revolution is now.

By defining myself, I exert authority and agency. I reclaim what has been taken from me.

Critiques

There are passionate arguments made for the position that some words can’t successfully be reclaimed. Some people feel that the terms are inseparable from their pejorative meanings, that the pejorative meanings are unreversible, and that attempts at reclamation are at best misguided, or at worst, counter-productive. Blackademic has written about her feelings about the controversies and debates on the reclamation of racist language.

lost clown, at Angry For A Reason, is pessimistic about all attempts to reclaim gendered language:

Men have defined our sexuality; they have defined words used to describe women’s sexuality and behaviors such as bitch, slut, whore, cunt, etc. Where are the positive words to define women’s sexuality? The lack of their existence is proof that women have never defined our own sexuality. When we attempt to “reclaim” these words, and give them a new meaning they remain hurtful to us, as they retain their original meanings and are still used negatively by others. An example: the American Heritage Dictionary defines the term bitch as “a female canine animal, esp. a dog” and “a spiteful or overbearing woman.” I am neither, and no matter how positively I use the term it will always mean a female dog and a spiteful woman. As long as we continue to use the words and behaviors defined by the oppressors we will never break the cycle of oppression; we will never truly be free. Female sexuality can never be reclaimed; it must be defined in the first place, something that has never happened. Reclamation is misleading, and an ultimate dead end. We can never reclaim anything that was never ours in the first place.

Dr. Crazy, at Reassigned Time makes the (rather obvious?) point that changing language won’t put an end to oppression:

All language is gendered. All language regulates behavior, determines identity, and ultimately polices the individual. Claiming or reclaiming a particular word isn’t going to make language itself any less oppressive. At the end of the day, if we successfully “reclaim” Bitch, or Crazy, or Slut, or Whore, or Cunt, another word is going to crop up in its place to “oppress opinionated women and to marginalize stereotypically feminine behaviors in men and women.” The point in any project of reclamation as far as I can tell is not that it’s going to stop oppression. Rather, it’s to change the terms of the discussion.

Dr Crazy elaborates on her own moniker in the comments, hitting one of my pet peeves (“don’t you have any real activism to get on with?”) in the process:

my being “Dr. Crazy” is actually ironic, rather than some kind of meaningful appropriation. I mean, call me crazy, call me a bitch – whatever – don’t we have more important things to talk about?

Dr Crazy’s argument is, to at least some extent, an argument against a position that most reclaimers don’t take. Strict linguistic determinism, or the “strong” version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been long since discredited. However, weaker versions of Whorfian linguistic relativism have retained currency and relevance under scrutiny, though they are the subject of many a late-night debate. I believe that language both reflects cultural values and reinforces them. Dramatic changes can’t be imposed unilaterally from above; however, the ways in which we speak about our power structures and ethics do feed back into the ways we think about them. Reminders (either self-directed or external) to use language in non-harmful ways may have the dual effect of both (a) not doing further harm!, and (b) helping to inscribe and reinscribe less hierarchical ways of thinking.

In the words of Whorf himself:

We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.

(For a densely nuanced reinterpretation, read Mark Liberman’s take on Whorf here at the Language Log.)

Concerns have also been raised about commercialised corporate meta-reclamation: re-re-appropriation? Bitch PhD commenter Susan writes:

I love Bitch magazine, and am sympathetic to the goal of feminists’ reclaiming of the term bitch. However, I also know that the word bitch has been commercially appropriated as a “hip” fashion statement or as a “sexy” reference to being some man’s bitch. Kind of like the rhinestone-encrusted t-shirts I see with the words porn star emblazoned across the front. Either could be used as a reclamation of a term or as a questioning of ways women are stigmatized (for doing social critique or for ways we use our sexuality). But both could also be used to commercially co-opt that impulse in order to reinforce negative perceptions of “bitches” and porn stars.

I have my own issues with some “reclamations”. Women who are privileged to have never been involved in sex work commonly use the words “tart” and “whore”. They may have had these words used against them in anger as generalised misogynistic epithets – does this “lend” them the word for reclamation, or does their privilege, their position in the hierarchy allow them the unexamined use of these words? “Nazi” is my pet peeve – women labelled “boob nazis” and “feminazis” may be rightfully angry about being slapped with these terms by asshats, but are their reclamation attempts really unproblematic in our world? I don’t think so.

Over to you

Which words have you reclaimed? Where are the reclamatory grey areas? What’s off-limits? Have any of these examples made you think, challenged your assumptions, pissed you off? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

33 responses to “Reclamation: thoughts from a fat hairy uppity lame bitch”

  1. Anji

    I have reclaimed ‘queer’ and ‘mad’/'crazy’ for myself. I can’t really speak for other marginalised groups as to what is off-limits, but I don’t think ‘retard’ is ever going to be able to be reclaimed simply because of the vicious meaning attached to it now.
    .-= Anji´s last blog ..Carnivals! =-.

  2. Rodo

    I’m not so much about reclaiming as positive and more about reclaiming as neutral/descriptive. My personal pet peeve: “depressed” and “crazy”. I am totally fine with people who are “crazy” (I don’t want to define the term either) and wish to reclaim it as positive, they have every right to, even if it’s not my thing. My problem are the neurotypical people who try to make themselves seem special by calling themselves “crazy” or “depressed”. Because, you know, they’re stealing my words. When I call myself depressed, people often assume I’m an emo kid or a hypochondriac or just, you know, “normal”, mostly because many neurotypical people claim these words as theirs, which annoys me to no end, because they don’t belong to them.

    I don’t know if this happens to other derogatory terms as well, but people take these words and give them a positive meaning, which should be good, right? Only it’s the wrong people, and they don’t even try to reclaim the word for the marginalised group, they’re taking it away and make it about them (only not entirely, they retain their original meaning as well). I’ve tried to explain to neurotypical persons why I don’t like this before, but they just tell me that “oh, but ‘crazy’ doesn’t mean that anymore, and definitely not in this context” and “but I want to distinguish myself from all those normal people because I’m not normal, I am a unique and special snowflake” and “but what other words can I use to express my quirkiness?”

    The last one is especially annoying when you’re talking to a group of self-declared writers who should know at least a few synonyms.

  3. Li

    Yeah, this kind of got me thinking about the different ways I reclaim things. For me, I tend to use both queer and crip to describe myself (sometimes headcrip as well), and for me that’s not just about reclaiming the word individually, but also about expanding the spaces those pejoratives occupied. It’s kind of, yes, we’re queer/crip, and those terms are way more complex than you thought, and there are way more of us than you thought.

    Whereas I don’t necessarily have that relationship with other words I tend to reclaim. I tend to use crazy a lot, but that’s partially a reaction against how often that word is used to delegitimise my choices (especially around my mental health), and an insistence that my craziness informs rather than limits my decisions. Faggot too, which I use but doesn’t really fill the same purposes queer does for me.

    Also (and this is a huge sideslide), I think the angry stuff is really interesting, cos for me it’s not just about reclaiming the word itself, but about reclaiming anger as a whole. We’re taught really often that anger is Bad, and that when people are angry should ask them to calm down, but I think what’s interesting about that particular reclamation is that it actually transforms the way anger can be used in political spaces. It says anger is politically powerful, that it signifies that our politics are part of our lives and not just some academic toy, and that the discussion shouldn’t be about how not to seem angry, but about how to mobilise anger in productive ways.

    I guess maybe that’s what’s interesting about reclamation. In some cases, it can be about regaining control of pejoratives, but in other cases, it can actually be about profoundly transforming whole ways of thinking, and the words are just the signifiers of that change.

    [disclaimer, I'm pretty hazy at the moment, so the above may not be very coherent. soz]

  4. kaninchenzero

    I personally would like to see ‘tranny’ stay in the unreclaimable pile.

  5. Knitting Clio

    As much as I would like to reclaim “crazy” and “nut” I find that there is still too much stigma attached to mental illness, and too much willingness to throw around these words to describe anyone with whom you disagree (e.g. “those Teabaggers sure are nuts”) to do so at this point. Even those who should know better use ablest language at times, perhaps unconsciously (e.g. Bitch Ph.D. using the phrase “deaf ears.”)

  6. vesta44

    I’ve always called myself a bitch, and when others have called me that as a way of being nasty, I’ve told them “damn right, I earned that title and I’m proud of it”. I’ve just recently reclaimed fat as a personal descriptor that isn’t derogatory. To me, it’s honest and doesn’t medicalize me the way “obese” does, and definitely doesn’t make me feel like some alien from another planet (like those headless fatty photos that accompany all the articles about the so-called “obesity epi-panic” do).
    So when people try to name-call me (which doesn’t happen very often any more), I just tell them they had better watch out for the fat bitch, ’cause Helga the Bitch Goddess takes no prisoners and PsychoBitch from Hell is even worse (references to days when I didn’t have my temper under control and was known to throw things and slam doors, etc). Ten years of therapy and anti-depressants got those aspects of my character under control, but push me hard enough for long enough and they still try to escape to wreak havoc. So I guess I’ve also reclaimed crazy for myself too (I’ve always liked that line from a Jimmy Buffett song – if we weren’t all crazy, we’d all go insane).
    .-= vesta44´s last blog ..Exposed to the flu and pneumonia and I’m still not sick =-.

  7. peanutbutter

    I wound up with so many politically correct expressions while growing up that somewhere around 11 years or so, I just started calling myself deaf. I’d gone through hard of hearing, hearing impaired, loss of hearing, and it seems like a half dozen more expressions to dance around the actual word “deaf”. I don’t think that’s quite reclaiming, but it is in some sense a rejection of a labeling scheme that focuses on what you are ostensibly missing vs what you are.

  8. Kaz

    I find reclaiming quite tricky. For instance, I’m not comfortable with either “crip” or “gimp” because those both have connotations of physical disability to me, so I don’t think it’s my place – after all, I have never had anyone attack me with those words, and it’s possible I never will. (And am also correspondingly uncomfortable by seeing people present them as for all disabled people, because that reads to me as somewhat exclusive of people with cognitive, neurological, etc. disabilities. Of course, that may just be me – I have similar issues with the word “able-bodied”, and that doesn’t seem to be so typical either.) Words like “retard” and “stupid” come closer, but there are still more words I get caught on the fringes of than that are directly aimed at me. “Crazy” I might be able to go for, but then again a lot of what gets me called crazy isn’t the depression but the autism which *isn’t* a mental illness and agh! It is complicated! I’m trying to think of slurs that are really aimed at me in specific – does “weird” count, do you think? And with the speech disorder it’s tricky because the usual ableist attitude there is to take stuttering to be a symptom of the negative personality trait of your choice instead of developing slurs for stuttering in specific. I don’t think reclaiming “coward” is precisely going to work.

    There’s also taking words with a positive connotation for the in-group and using them as negatives (“bah, *normal* people”) but I find that unpleasantly negative. Not so much because “oh the poor currently-abled people!” but because… we should define ourselves by what we are, not by what other people are, you know?

    And Rodo, I entirely agree – reclamation has to be done by the oppressed group, and I’d say with an eye to subverting the dominant narrative. The border is fuzzy (e.g. whether it would be appropriate for me to reclaim “gimp”), but people who don’t have a mental illness, are in fact entirely neurotypical and don’t even ID as disabled using “crazy” with no subverting effect whatsoever is entirely beyond the pale.

    In fact, I have Thinky Thoughts on the whole phenomenon of NT people doing the whole unique and special snowflake thing – basically acting as though normal is bad! deviation from the normal good! but only when it’s done their way. And as someone who has been the bad kind of weird her whole life, for whom trying (and failing) to conform has always been a survival mechanism, it really pisses me off that they can’t see what an expression of privilege what they’re doing is. (I can’t identify with the whole nonconformity-as-an-ideal thing in general, in fact, simply because for me conformity has never been an option. There are whole reams of literature/movies/etc. dedicated to the apparently-common fear of becoming just like everyone else that leave me utterly cold.)
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..fuck you ubuntu so very much =-.

  9. Kaz

    “Nazi” is my pet peeve – women labelled “boob nazis” and “feminazis” may be rightfully angry about being slapped with these terms by asshats, but are their reclamation attempts really unproblematic in our world? I don’t think so.

    I missed this on my first read-through, and I am going to say that I am incredibly unhappy with people trying to reclaim this stuff. Yeeaah, sure, you get hit with “feminazi” for being a feminist. You know who also gets hit with Nazi?

    Me. Because I’m German.

    Reclaim it? There is not enough no in the world.

    Nazi is, to me, something entirely different from your ordinary perjorative because it has a specific historical connotation which is… loaded. I don’t want to see it being tossed around as the perjorative of the day, I don’t want to see people reclaim it, in fact I don’t want to see it used outside of its proper context at all.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..fuck you ubuntu so very much =-.

  10. LeeLee

    I don’t think Nazi qualifies for reclamation. It doesn’t meet the criteria, and calling people “Nazis” diminishes the history of what happened. Chaps my ass when people say things like “grammar Nazi.” I’ve even taken time to explain why certain politicians, while I hate their policies and beliefs, are NOT Nazis.

    And referring to those of German descent as Nazi?! Yeah, uncool. My mom’s from Germany, and I have been indelicately asked if I had any sympathies for Nazis. A frosty glare sufficed for an answer. Not even worth addressing at any length.

    The only reclaimed term I use for myself is “Okie.” That was a hell of an insult when hurled at migrant workers from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, and persisted as a more specific way of calling someone “white trash.” It carried connotations of being filthy, illiterate, shiftless, etc. But that’s my history, and my ancestors were illiterate dirt farmers. Wait – I use “redneck,” too. There may be a few I’m not realizing. But I don’t know that I’ll be comfortable reclaiming any disability-related terms, at least for wider use. Many of those words are still actively used as pejoratives, and I worry that my using it could be seen as validation of the term or as internalized ableism. I do understand the rationale of those who choose to reclaim the terms, however.

  11. K

    I’m on the fence about “Dysfunctional” – it’s not so much a re-claiming as positive so much as an accepting as a neutral description. I think Rodo touched on that. It’s not a positive word, can be used as an insult – but it feels ‘right’ on me. The thing is what I’m seeing is other folks going around and denying that sexual dysfunction exists, so I’m partly trying to counter that & say, “this is real!” it’s not necessarily a word I need to be protected from.

    Related – I haven’t worked out my feelings on “Broken.” I call myself broken, say “I have a broken vag” even though I know that’s not really true (and I would still be a decent person even if it was.) I think I may have internalized “Broken” & will not be able to make it positive or neutral.
    .-= K´s last blog ..Interesting posts, weekend of Halloween 2k9 =-.

  12. Kaz

    Yeah, exactly. :/ That’s what I meant to say by the historical connotation being loaded (although I couldn’t find the words so went for something roughly similar instead, sorry) – using it as a random perjorative diminishes the horror of what happened which is why you really, really shouldn’t.

    On a happier note – I see people talking about reclaimed language regarding other things than disability. I use “queer” (which has been so successful re: reclamation that I often forget it was originally perjorative; for me it’s mainly a handy way to fit myself into the broader spectrum of non-heterosexual sexualities without needing to launch into 101), and have been considering trying to reclaim “frigid” – because hey, if anyone has the right to it’s asexual women. OTOH, there’d need to be more people than me doing it.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..fuck you ubuntu so very much =-.

  13. K

    Ehhhhhh “frigid” is a no-go if you ask me. No. No.

    I mean I was watching that recent “Marie Antoinette” movie with Kirsten Dunst in it and some if the ladies said Marie was “Frigid,” and I sorta overreacted. That ruined the whole movie for me.
    .-= K´s last blog ..Interesting posts, weekend of Halloween 2k9 =-.

  14. Kaz

    Ack, sorry, I hadn’t thought about women with FSD. You have as much right to decide what happens there as we do, I think.

    Can I ask why you say it’s a no go? You don’t have to! It’s just always frustrated me because the usual meaning I hear of that word – a woman refusing to have sex even when pressured – has always felt to me as though it should be at least partially *positive*, because the woman is aware of her desires, communicates them and resists attempts to coerce her into going against them. That said, the way I’ve experienced the term probably differs quite a bit from how you have given that we are coming from very different places.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..fuck you ubuntu so very much =-.

  15. Naamah

    I freely identify as crazy. The thing is, I call myself that. Unless they are a
    close friend, anyone else should be calling me bipolar, or mentally ill. I don’t know if that speaks well or poorly of me, but there it is. It’s something I am comfortable calling myself, something I suppose I am comfortable BEING, but it’s not something I’m comfortable with other people using to describe me.

    I call myself fat, too, because I am, and because we really need to turn that word into something that is descriptive, not something that is understood to be insulting most of the time. And if someone calls me fat, I am pretty much okay with that.

  16. Amanda

    I’ve been hairy my whole life (had visible facial hair, unibrow, and unusual types/amounts of hair since childhood), and didn’t even know it was reclaiming anything to call myself that.

    Definitely fat.

    Sometimes I use gimp and crip, sometimes I don’t. Not because I’m not physically disabled, but because sometimes those terms are used to define a culture which has often actively worked to shut out people like me who’re also cognitively disabled.

    I use crazy. I’ve done enough time in the psych system to earn it. And I don’t accept the illness model for what happened to me (even when I use terms like PTSD/CPTSD/depression/OCD/etc. as a shorthand), so crazy/mad is the only easy word that works.

    I’ve been called retard in all its variations my entire life. To me that word isn’t a diagnosis anymore than bitch is a diagnosis, it’s a sociological category that encompasses everything that’s usually considered a developmental disability and even a lot of other things, mostly but not exclusively cognitive. If someone uses that (or mong, tard, or any of the variations) I throw it back in their face with “yeah I’m a proud retard,” or “glad I’m a retard and not a bigot like you,” etc. It’s the only way I have learned to deal with the intense dehumanization people mean when they hurl that word at me out of cars, on street corners, on youtube, etc. Many of my DD friends and I throw the word around in banter about how other people perceive us, and all of us take the pejorative meaning seriously underneath the apparent light-heartedness.

    I get nervous when I see it being used purely lightheartedly, by people who’ve never had to deal with being called that, though. When it’s used pejoratively it’s used by people who intend to imply you’re something way less than human, worse than most of the other disability epithets because prejudice against cognitively disabled people is some of the most ingrained I’ve ever seen even among other disabled people. And people who forget that… I can’t deal with.

    Probably haven’t covered everything I use, but that’s what I can think of now.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Blueberries =-.

  17. K

    “Frigid” is also used to mean “Cold,” as in, “Un-warm, un-loving, boring, cold fish, bad lover.” So if you aren’t having penis-in-vagina penetrative sex and you’re called “Frigid,” it’s like being told that you’re a cold person, especially sexually.

    Which isn’t necessarily true! You can be perfectly warm & loving or kinky or kinda meh on sex and not be having sex. But “Frigid” has this history of Freudian taint & it just carried forward this whole time.
    .-= K´s last blog ..Talking about FSD: How not to =-.

  18. Samantha Skookum

    I’d like to see “tranny” beyond the pale, rather than reclaimed. It invariably means “fake” in its original context (making trans women into exotic, fake, transgressive sex objects for men…)

  19. Tera

    I’d like to reclaim “brain damage,” at least in the neutral-descriptor sense. (I think “brain injury” is the more socially acceptable term now. But “brain damage” was the phrase my doctors used when they found/diagnosed it. And I have trouble thinking of a probable stroke before/around birth as an “injury,” but thaat’s probably a literal interpretation of language).

    Because my mom says that my neuropsychologist debated about using “brain damage” in his report, even though it had been found and diagnosed already. And he definitely knew it, because the MRI was in the paperwork my mom gave him. (He eventually did use it). So there’s a reluctance to use that phrase when it’s accurate.

    I’ve also seen it used as an insult, to totally dismiss people’s opinions in the same way that cognitive disability and mental illness words can be used. And sometimes—not always, but sometimes—it seems like the people using “brain-damaged” in that way don’t think that anybody they’re talking to could have brain damage.

    But that’s the problem with reclaiming “brain damage,” too. Because the person could easily just learn that “some people with brain damage are more like me than I thought. I should stop insulting them.” When it is just as much of in insult to someone with brain damage/injury who is less like you than I am (e.g. who doesn’t speak, need 24-hour-care, etc). If not more so.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Sweetie =-.

  20. Amy

    I’m wholly in love with the idea of rejecting The Man, giving the finger to his ideal that we need him to define us. So, me: crippled, sometimes broken, crazy, most definitely bitchy woman, who is empowered enough to reject your identification (like we’re fucking numbers).

    I do identify with Kaz’s situation too, because although my Asperger’s traits are hidden, sometimes they pop out and I’m left explaining the rage that I feel when people fuck with me socially. I suppose being called `shy’ made me a loud-mouth bitch?
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..Beauty and pain; travelling and OTW stuff. =-.

  21. Annie Mcfly

    I’m working on reclaiming “crazy,” “bitch,” and “gimpy/gammy” myself, but I don’t really feel entitled to reclaim very many other words. I don’t think “tranny” and “nazi” need to be reclaimed by anyone, but if a trans person wanted to reclaim “tranny” I certainly wouldn’t tell them they were wrong.

  22. thetroubleis

    I use crazy, mad, insane, fat and nappy headed in reference to my self. None of those are horrible things.
    .-= thetroubleis´s last blog ..What It Is To Be A Monster =-.

  23. kaninchenzero

    Annie, I’ve heard that some trans men use ‘tranny’ selfreferentially. I’m not sure it’s reclamatory considering the history of its use mainly against trans women. Given where we are in terms of hate crimes and discrimination in employment and housing and criminal justice (and…) against trans* folk, it feels too raw to be reclaiming hate speech used against us right now. But that’s just me. Mileage, of course, varies.

  24. Canadian Amy

    I remember planning the queer component of a larger volunteer retreat, sitting around with only the transsexuals present, and discussing the lack of shower-options. The coordinator said, “we’ve got the signs we wanted. We’ll manage with what’s left: us trannies are resourceful.” It communicated a strong sense of solidarity in the face of oppression.

    I also know one trans guy who was badly beaten, his assailants launched the assault saying “he’s a trannny.”

    So I’m hopeful for the reclamation of “tranny,” and I think that some FtMs, genderqueers and *most definitely* MtF cross-dressers (as the average bigot makes no distinction between CDs and TSs) should feel free to partake.

    This said, I am very careful about *where* I use it. I use it only around people who I’m pretty darn sure are cool with it. I don’t use it around my older TS sisters, who have been through waaay more shit than I will ever go through. I certainly don’t use it in public.

    Often, I see the discussion over “tranny” come down to “use it” vs “don’t use it.” But can we find a space for progression between the two; between taboo and open reclamation? How did “Queer,” and “Dyke” go from always-slurs to words used freely in naming marches, dances and organivations?

  25. Bee

    “I’m not so much about reclaiming as positive and more about reclaiming as neutral/descriptive”

    I think this is similar to my attitude towards using crazy, manic, depressed, panic, anxiety, etc. Around the people I am “out” to (mental illness-wise), I use those words descriptively. As if to say “no actually, THIS is what it is like to be depressed.” I want the “sane” people of the world to know that when they say they’re depressed when they are sad or tired, they are using the word wrong/invoking something serious.”

    I don’t like nut-job, psycho, etc and would rather they stay unreclaimed.

    Bitch, cunt, etc – meh. Sometimes I don’t feel strongly attached to my biologically female sex and so reclaiming these can feel inappropriate.

    Fat – check (the last think I need in life is people trying to convince me that “you’re not fat.” Yes. I am. It’s ok, Im sure you’ll live. Me, I might not… being teh OBESE and all)

    Angry – Along what Li was talking about, I see anger as not only not-bad, but as good and important.

    Queer – I don’t really consider this to be a reclaimation, because I use it as the primary label to describe my gender and sexuality, but I know it technically is

    I also use fag/faggot/transfag but ONLY when I know my audience very well and am sure that other LGB/trans/queer people around are ok with the term AND that any non LGBTQ people around would not take my usage of the term as a reason it’s ok for them to use the term.

  26. Juliet November

    Whore, hooker and ho because I am one! woot!
    Having said that, i never use it with someone who hasn’t themselves identified as a whore. Also, as a white working class hooker, i’m also thoughtful about how i’d apply these terms to any but myself because both whore and ho as both have been used to stereotype and discriminate (and worse)–against poor and working class transwomen and women of colour in particular.

  27. SamanthaD

    To me reclamation can be about so much more than just words. As a woman with Tourette’s who’s most recognizable symptom is loud barking I get a lot of stares. One of the things that I do is I embrace a kind of whimsical persona of a puppy dog when with friends in a rather light hearted way. I feel that in the same way that reclaiming words reclaims identity, reclaiming the *idea* of me barking like a dog helps me reclaim my identity.

    Also, for me the word “bitch” means oh so much more than it does for most women.

    Finally, I’d just like to say I’m a proud tranny, although I’m careful where I use that term.

  28. SamanthaD

    Also, I really have a hard time with some of these words that people use to dance around certain things, especially disabilities. “Differently-abled” really annoys me.

  29. The White Lady

    yeah, SamanthaD…differently abled really gets my blood pressure up, though I think maybe for a different reason? (apologies if I am misunderstanding you)

    Everyone has different abilities, even if you leave disability out of it. I think what annoys me about people using the phrase ‘differently-abled’ is that it sounds like they are trying to….diminish, perhaps…the seriousness of disability, by putting it on a par with differing levels of ability.

    Also, the word ‘challenged’. GRARH! *TWL Smash!*

  30. SamanthaD

    Oh geez, don’t even get me started on challenged.

    I feel that, for me, there are two big reasons why I can’t stand “differently abled.” The first is that it really takes the white-out to the hardships in my life. Being disabled really does make life more challenging and I take great pride in being able to meet those challenges. I feel that people telling me that I’m just “differently abled” in some way strips me of this. I also feel that it really diminishes the experiences of people who are not able to necessarily meet those challenges fully due to their disability.

    My main qualm I have with “differently abled” is that abled people who use the term are often times using it as a euphemism for disabled, as if being disabled was something undesirable or something we should be ashamed of.

  31. kitrona

    For me, “frigid” has always been associated with my mother, most likely because a. she is and b. the ex once told me, “You’re exactly like your mother: frigid.” (Heaven forbid it could just be that I wasn’t attracted to him. *eyeroll*)

    My mother used sex, or lack thereof, as a weapon. (I know way too much about my parents’ sex life. Thanks, Dad. :P ) That’s my personal association with “frigid”.

    As far as what I’m reclaiming… um. I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of it, but “feminist” and “disabled”.

  32. LeeLee

    In addition to how “differently abled” diminishes disability, it makes me think about characters like the annoying guitar-playing teacher from Beavis and Butthead and Stuart Smalley from SNL – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh-darn-it, people like me.”

    Those characters may be funny on TV, but those attitudes are rage-inducing in real life.

  33. rainbow

    my reclaimed words that i can th ink of right off the bat: bitch/bitchy, uppity, queer, cunt, geek, crazy, crip, gimp

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